What we learned from Mobile World Congress 2014

Mark Holden

At this year's Mobile World Congress, we saw an unusual number of flagship phone launches, even more wearables, car brands taking major space at a mobile event, the high profile appearance of one the tech giants who usually doesn’t ‘do’ MWC and more chipmakers setting their stall out to become consumer brands.

I’ve scoured the eight giant halls of the Fila Gran Via, trying to make sense of the keynotes, launches, and myriad exhibitors. Here is my take on the big developments that we’re seeing unfold in this year’s Mobile World Congress:

How to connect the unconnected

Despite two new flagship phones announced by Sony (the Z2) and Samsung (the S5), it’s clear that smartphones are only developing by increment. In Sony’s case, it has focused on capture and imaging, whilst it’s telling that Samsung has pared back the design of the S5 to focus on some fundamentals – ease of use, battery life, speed, user security. But, for me, the real story is to be found on the stalls of Huawei, ZTE, NEC, Asus and others. They point towards a much more competitive hardware landscape with parallels to the PC industry. We’re past the point of radical hardware innovation in smartphones, so price will increasingly dominate competition and phone-buying behaviour.

Cheaper smartphones are also part of the connecting-the-unconnected equation that Mark Zuckerberg spoke about in his keynote, and it’s clear that in the near future all phones will be smart. For the UK this should be the watershed year when smartphone penetration exceeds fixed line broadband. The ubiquitous mobile internet might be a mixed blessing for manufacturers, but for the marketing community it’s no bad thing: we have the opportunity to enhance and influence customer journeys ‘online’ and ‘offline’.

Realising mobile’s rich media potential

Where there is hardware innovation, mobiles will become true rich media devices. The increase in screen size, display quality, HD imaging capture and a clear momentum behind 4G will all come together to open to make rich content experiences on-the-go viable for end users. These are developments being driven by every manufacturer. For example, LG’s U+ Share service enables live video streaming to groups of friends – WhatsApp meets live video capture. On the hardware front, the Asus Fonepad Mini, which quite literally brings together smartphone and tablet into a two-in-one device, also points towards solutions which make mobile rich media viable.

There are clear potential benefits in mobile marketing across a number of areas: richer, better brand advertising; quality brand content capture and sharing made easier directly from a mobile device; and even customer service, as services like Kindle Mayday and the ASOS G+ Helpouts are already demonstrating.

Software is the battleground

If hardware is developing in increments, this is certainly not true of software, where the battle to own the mobile user experience is still one being keenly contested. Android is becoming ever-more dominant. The launch of an open Android Nokia phone (excluding embedded Google search of course) and the use of Android as a platform to power tablets and internet of things devices is a testament to the growth of Android. It is clear that the alternative OS platforms launched at MWC 2013, such as Firefox and Ubuntu, and Samsung-backed Tizen, haven’t really made any significant headway in building OS share, despite the appeal of their ‘open’ OS vision. Google will be an increasingly important part of the digital marketing tech and advertising universe.

And of course the other key issue we’ve seen unfold is in over the top mobile messaging. WhatsApp’s plans to roll out voice calling and Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance this year are significant: they know they need to engage with GSMA-affiliated mobile networks to mitigate a showdown between app-builders and networks about ownership of the messaging and call experience on smartphones. This is already an issue that marketers, especially those who have invested in building SMS databases or services, are grappling with as we move towards a post-SMS messaging world. Apps are likely to be the new mediators of one-to-ne mobile messaging for marketing purposes.

A look into our converged mobile future

Finally, evidence of mobile converging with devices in our homes, our cars and cities was everywhere at MWC this year. Though they are usually not the focus of their stands, the converged services and products that Samsung, Sony, LG and others are developing are demonstrating how they could be shaping the connected home and our living room media experiences soon.

For example, LG’s homeBoy, which syncs with an LG tablet to control everything from TV, audio, home schooling, mapping and closed circuit TV. Huawei’s MediaQ Smart TV box, which retails for around £100, is similarly designed to make mobile both the remote control, and even the principle source of content, for TV-viewing. There are signs here that mobiles could yet shape how we choose to watch TV, and of course, how we experience TV advertising.

For many end users, connected, converged homes and cars are not yet a reality, but the momentum at MWC is clearly building towards this in the not too distant future.

Mark Holden is head of futures at Arena Media. You can follow him on Twitter @HoldenMW

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